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A Modern Understanding of Trolling Speed

Trolling speed can and does make a profound difference in fishing success. Certain species like this magnificent lake trout caught by Jake Romanack are more readily caught at slower trolling speeds than other species.

By: Mark Romanack

             Next to target depth, the most important variable associated with trolling can be summed up in two words... boat speed. Understanding trolling speed is essential for anglers who plan to mix two or more common fishing presentations in the same trolling pattern. It’s true that understanding what trolling speeds produce best with specific trolling hardware is important, but there is a lot more to understand about trolling speed.
            Most serious anglers agree that trolling speed is a decisive strike triggering element. Because lure action changes as boat speed is increased and decreased, anglers can fine tune a trolling bite by making controlled adjustments to the trolling speed. Often it only takes a minor change in speed to literally light up a bite!
            This is precisely why many trollers lecture to avoid trolling in a straight line, but rather to troll in a lazy “S” pattern. A wandering trolling path is essentially speeding up baits pulled on the outside turn and at the same time is slowing down those baits on the inside turn.
            If while trolling the lazy “S” pattern more bites are occurring on the outside turn, this is an indication that speeding up the overall trolling speed is in order. On the other hand, if more bites are coming on the inside turn this is suggesting that slowing down the overall speed is in order.
Experimenting with trolling speeds is often the
 key to making an “Okay” bite into an “Exceptional” bite!
            Historically most open water trolling chores have been conducted with the help of a small gasoline outboard commonly called the “kicker”. Kicker motors these days are largely four stroke outboards that are noticeably finicky when it comes to running at a consistent RPM range.
            Because four stroke outboards don’t idle and slow troll at a consistent RPM range, trolling speeds tend to vary constantly while fishing. Some might imagine this is an advantage in terms of finding the “most productive” trolling speed on any given day. The problem is because the trolling speed is constantly fluctuating, it’s tough to pin down exactly what speed is triggering the most strikes.
            The solution to this kicker motor problem is to invest in a after market throttle control. Both wireless and hard-wired models are on the market that use a rheostat to stabilize the speed and also to make precise changes to trolling speed. Panther Marine Products is an industry leader in developing throttle controls for outboard kicker motors.
            With the help of a throttle control it’s possible to adjust and maintain trolling speeds as small as 1/10th of a mile per hour.
            The gasoline kicker motor is the workhorse of small boat trolling, but increasingly more and more anglers are also incorporating GPS guided electric motors in their trolling regiment. The advantages of these electric motors are profound. For one, because electric motor thrust is controlled by a rheostat switch, it’s possible to make and maintain very precise changes in trolling speed.
            Secondly, because these electric motors can be set to follow a compass heading it’s possible to duplicate productive trolling passes in a way never before possible with conventional trolling technology.
            Thirdly, GPS guided electric motors also allow anglers to set down specific waypoints and program the electric motor to navigate from waypoint to waypoint. This feature essentially allows the angler to follow meandering weed edges or drop-offs like a beagle following a rabbit track!
            The MotorGuide Xi5 uses the unique Pinpoint GPS tracking technology that allows anglers to benefit from several critical trolling functions including Heading Lock, Route Playback and Cruise Control. In the Heading Lock mode the unit will follow a course and maintain that course precisely. In the Route Playback mode up to eight different trolling routes can be programmed and duplicated again and again. The Cruise Control mode allows for a trolling speed to be precisely maintained while in Heading Lock or Route Playback mode compensating for the effects of both wind and current.
Kicker motors like the four stroke model pictured here are the workhorses
 of trolling chores among small boat anglers. With the help of after market
 throttle controls, kicker motors can be used to achieve
 highly refined and controlled trolling speeds.
            Since the invention of GPS guided electric motors a growing number of anglers are incorporating both a gasoline outboard and electric motor into their daily trolling regiment. Depending on the target trolling speed either a kicker motor or a primary outboard can be used to generate the desired speed. The GPS electric motor is in turn used to tweak trolling speed and also to provide GPS navigation chores.
            The Fishing 411 crew uses this two motor trolling option routinely. For salmon, trout, pike, musky and warm water walleye fishing where trolling speeds are 2.2 to 3.0 MPH the primary outboard is generally used in combination with the GPS guided electric motor.
            Many modern V6 outboard motors have special throttle controls that make it easy for anglers to dial in specific trolling speeds. The Evinrude G2 fly by wire throttle controls can deliver amazingly refined throttle adjustments. A digital gauge clearly shows the percentage of throttle making it possible to make adjustments as refined as 1% of throttle!
            For slower trolling speeds commonly used for targeting cold water walleye, brown trout or lake trout, a gasoline kicker motor is used in combination with the GPS guided electric motor.
            When trolling at ultra slow speeds such as walleye live bait rigging or cold water crankbait trolling, trolling with just the GPS guided electric motor is the ticket. A typical 36 volt electric motor will troll a 20 foot “walleye boat” for about 12 hours on a full battery charge.
            Between the primary outboard, kicker motors and GPS guided electric motors, there are virtually no trolling situations that can’t be mastered with these products.
            The trolling speeds indicated by a GPS unit are of course the speed over ground the boat is maintaining at the water surface. Below the surface things can and often are much different.
            Subsurface currents are a common problem associated with trolling in the Great Lakes and other deep water natural lakes. The Fish Hawk X4D is a probe that mounts to a downrigger ball that effectively provides anglers trolling speed, depth and critical temperature information at depth. The system functions via a transducer based signal eliminating any need for special downrigger cables to transfer data.
            By monitoring the trolling speed at depth it’s possible to detect subsurface currents and make sure that trolling gear at depth is fishing at the proper speed. Without the help of electronics like the X4D unit an angler is literally guessing what speed his gear is fishing at depth.
            Trolling speed is one of those fishing variables that seems straight forward, but in truth is a highly complex subject. Those anglers who embrace trolling speed as a means of triggering strikes are in the fast track to fishing success. To the anglers who ignore trolling speed and the impact it has on open water trolling, maybe they would be more successful at golf?  

Dirty Water & The Walleye Bite

Weather has a nasty habit of turning otherwise clear bodies of water into stained, dirty or downright “chocolate milk” fishing conditions. Using blade baits and scent products is one way the Fishing 411 crew consistently catches walleye in these tough conditions.
By Mark Romanack

Most walleye fishermen agree that dirty water is the kiss of death. It’s true that walleye are sight feeders and in dirty water conditions they are generally much tougher to catch.
            The thing about fishing I often remind anglers is there are no absolutes. In other words, never say never! In dirty water there are ways to catch walleye that are surprisingly effective.
            Blade baits are made from a stamped piece of metal with a molded lead weight on the bottom. Some blade baits are equipped with “double hooks” similar to those bass fishermen use for fishing plastic frogs, but most blade baits are equipped with two treble hooks.
Blade baits have an unique vibration that makes
 them especially powerful fishing lures for
 targeting walleye in dirty water conditions.
            The tail treble hook tends to be larger and the hook on the belly is a little smaller. This hooking arrangement helps keep the two treble hooks from tangling with one another and also the fishing line from catching on the hooks while jigging.
            Because blades can be casted long distances, they are often used to cover water quickly. When casting it’s best to make a long cast and allow the blade bait to sink to bottom. Reel up the slack line and when the rod tip loads from the weight of the lure, raise the rod tip about a foot, pause and let the blade sink bait to bottom.
            This simple retrieve brings out the famous action of the blade bait. Blades have a tight vibration that readily telegraphs up the line and can easily be felt in the rod. When the blade can be felt vibrating all is good. The second the line goes dead, chances are the blade bait has picked up debris from the bottom or the line has become tangled in the hooks.
            Blade baits typically deliver violent strikes much like a walleye hitting a crankbait. Casting is one approach, but drifting and vertical jigging is another way blade baits excel. Vertical jigging makes it easier for the angler to maintain contact with bottom while controlling the lift and drop rate of the bait. This more controlled presentation allows the vibration of the blade to do it’s work and just about eliminates problems with the line fouling on the hooks.
            The most effective way to vertical jig a blade bait is something called “tight line jigging” that involves lifting the bait just a few inches off bottom and then dropping the bait back to bottom on a tight line. Most anglers work the blade too aggressively and end up spending most of their time untangling the fishing line from the hooks.
            One of the reasons blades work so well in dirty water is the violent vibration pulls in fish that can’t see the bait, but they certainly can “feel” it. When “tight lining” the bait it makes it easier for fish to zero in on the lure.
            Another lure group that performs well in dirty water conditions are known as attractor jigs. These lead head jigs feature props, blades, flippers or other attractors that make them easier for fish to see, feel and hear in dirty water. Combining these jigs with a soft plastic “swimbait” tail is a great way to increase the overall size of the presentation and also add in a thumping vibration from the paddle tail.
            Selecting brightly colored jigs and plastic bodies is a must when fishing in dirty water. Black and purple are also colors that contrast well against dirty water.
Injecting pure fish oil into live bait and cut baits
 is a great way to enhance the “scent stream”
when fishing in dirty water conditions.
            Many anglers feel the best way to approach dirty water is to slow down and use live bait or cut bait. Certainly having a “scent stream” in the water will help when fishing dirty water.
            The natural scent of a live minnow is a good place to start, but there are lots of unique “scent products” on the market that can enhance the scent stream. Pro Cure, one of the leading fishing scent manufacturers suggests injecting pure fish oils into baits when fishing with both live and dead minnows. Pro Cure produces both the oils and injector hardware for this style of fishing.
            Another option is to enhance live and cut baits by using baitfish dyes that make the baits more visible to fish in dirty water. Again Pro Cure is a leader in this department and their Bad Azz Color Blast is a UV and color enhancement that comes in orange, pink, chartreuse/line, blue and purple colors. One little squirt of this bait dye turns a minnow brilliant color and also adds a UV visual attractant.
Color dyes and UV enhancers are great tools for
 making live and cut baits more visible
 to fish when targeting dirty water.
            Fishing scents are not just limited to live bait and cut bait. Blade baits can also be enhanced by applying paste style scents to these lures. Most liquid fishing scents wash off hard baits almost as quickly as they hit the water. The Pro Cure Super Gel series of fishing scents are sticky and designed to adhere to hard baits, soft plastics and even live bait. A little dab will produce a powerful scent stream in the water for about 30-40 minutes before it is necessary to re-apply.
            Made from real bait fish, Super Gel is made from dozens of different baitfish species. Some of the more popular Super Gel choices among walleye anglers are Emerald Shiner, Alewife, Gizzard Shad, Smelt and Minnow.
            Fishing in dirty water is something that walleye anglers don’t look forward to. Sight feeders like walleye are easier to catch in clear to stained water, but they can be caught even in dirty water when the right lures and scent products are used.


Understanding Pike & Musky Leaders

One of the biggest pike the author has boated to date, when trolling and also for some faster cast and retrieve baits like this ducktail, a leader isn’t usually necessary because the bait is big enough that even trophy fish have a hard time getting the entire lure in their mouth.

Mark Romanack

            Anyone who has encountered the northern pike or musky has also encountered the dreaded “bite off”, so common when these fish come unglued on a bucktail, jerkbait, jig or spoon. Combine a bone jarring strike with a mouth full of dagger-like teeth and it’s no wonder anglers everywhere have openings in their tackle box where their favorite lures used to be.
            Not only do pike and musky have a major case of overbite, they can bite through just about any fishing line short of steel wire. No doubt this is why the common coated steel leader is considered standard equipment by many anglers who venture into esox country. Wire leaders prevent “bite offs”, but they can also prevent a lot of strikes from happening in the first place.
            If not using a leader means fish lost to “bite offs” and using a leader means no bites, what’s an angler to do? The answer depends a lot on the lure type and presentation involved. For certain pike and musky fishing methods a leader isn’t necessary and for others it’s almost mandatory. Understanding when to use leaders and what types work best with various lures and fishing presentations is the fast track to Esox fishing success.
            When is a pike or musky leader not necessary? The quick answer is a leader isn’t necessary in most crankbait trolling situations. Usually when trolling with crankbaits pike and musky are lip hooked. This happens in part because a fast moving lure on a steady course is hard for a pike or musky to fully engulf down their gullet. Most of these fish caught while trolling have the lure lodged firmly in their mouth, but not buried so deep the fish can shear off the line. Also, pike and musky sized crankbaits are more than a mouthful even for big fish. Simply trolling with larger lures will prevent 99% of “bite offs”.
            If big crankbaits help to reduce “bite offs”, which lure group suffers most from the sharp teeth of these fish? The short answer this time is jigs. Jigs dressed in various soft plastics or with live minnows tend to get sucked right down the stove pipe and “bite offs” are common. When jig fishing a bite resistant leader of some sort is almost mandatory.
            Other smaller lures like in-line spinners and spoons are also very susceptible to “bite offs”. Fishing without a leader with any bait that’s small enough to easily fit inside a pike or musky mouth is like playing Russian Roulette with all the cylinders loaded.
Pike and musky have a lot of razor sharp teeth that play havoc
 with just about any type of fishing line. Using a leader to
 prevent “bite offs” is often necessary, but not in all fishing situations.

            The type of retrieve used is also a factor in how many “bite offs” are likely to occur. A hefty spinnerbait or magnum sized bucktail spinner that’s casted and retrieved with a steady cranking motion is fairly safe from the teeth of these predators.
            Other lures like jerkbaits or topwater plugs that are fished in a start and stop motion are sitting ducks and almost certain to suffer from “bite offs” if precautions aren’t taken.
            Anglers will find a host of leaders designed to make pike and musky fishing a happy affair. For fishing techniques where the risk of “bite offs” is lower fashioning a 18 inch long leader from 50 to 80 pound test fluorocarbon line is a good option. Fluorocarbon is flexible, holds knots well and has enough abrasion resistance to turn back the teeth of pike and musky in most situations. Tie a ball bearing swivel on one end of this leader and a heavy duty snap on the other end.
            Presentations that require a little more “bite off” protection require leaders made of titanium wire. Titanium wire is thinner than coated wire and also resists kinking when a powerful fish is hooked. A number of manufactures produce titanium wire leaders designed with toothy critters in mind.
            For the maximum in “bite off” protection anglers may want to consider  heavier wire leaders known as “jerkbait leaders”. Normally these are made of a much stiffer single strand wire and are used for fishing jerkbaits to target monster musky and trophy class walleye.
            The way to beat the teeth of pike and musky is to match up the right leader with the right lures and presentations. Understanding the basics of leader technology can just about guarantee that when Mr. Big decides to bite, the experience will result in a thrill not a disappointment.        

Coho Crazy

Trolling heavy gear like Dipsy Divers, lead core and copper line make no sense when targeting spring coho and browns. Downsizing gear is the way to make spring fishing exciting again.
By: Mark Romanack

            I’m guilty of getting a little crazy about the time ice starts melting from boat launches all across the Great Lakes. After being cooped up doing fishing seminars and boat shows for three straight months, those first couple of open water fishing opportunities are extra sweet.
            I call it going “coho crazy” because coho salmon are typically the first species open water trollers can target here in the Great Lakes region. Not only are coho popular on the table, when you find a school it’s common to hook up with two or three at a time! Very few other species of fish are as active as spring coho.
            The problem with these fish is they are long on taste and short on stature. The typical coho caught in Great Lakes waters during March, April and even into May average about two pounds in size.
            Most captains who target spring coho are fishing them with the same gear and presentations they use to catch salmon the rest of the year. Downriggers, diving planers and lead core line teamed up with planer boards are the most common presentations.
            Here’s where I stray from the crowd. Catching a two pound coho using a standard Dipsy set up is like going bluegill fishing with my musky rods. Coho are exciting fish to catch when they are targeted using lighter rods, reels and line diameters.
            Since most anglers can’t justify owning multiple sets of trolling rods, I clearly understand why they use their heavy salmon gear to also target spring coho. Many years ago I started using my walleye trolling sticks for targeting spring coho and browns. This simple step instantly put the fun back into spring trolling.
            A 20 size line counter reel loaded with 10 to 12 pound test monofilament is the perfect set up for coho, browns and of course walleye. The next step is downsizing the terminal tackle to match with the lighter rods and reels.
            Across the Great Lakes anglers commonly target coho using two attractors including dodgers and rotators. Both of these attractor types create a lot of unnecessary resistance in the water.
            An alternative is the Big Al Fish Flash a triangle shaped flasher that spins on it’s own axis creating lots of flash and near zero drag in the water. The Fishing 411 guys use the four inch Fish Flash a ton when targeting coho with small spoons like the Mini Streak by Wolverine Tackle.
            Fish Flash works great on a light or medium light downrigger rod when attached directly to the snap on the end of the rod. Next add a fluorocarbon leader five to six feet in length and then the spoon of choice.

Coho in the spring are typically modest in size. 
Getting the most from these fish requires
 downsizing rods, reels, lines and lures.

            Wobbling plugs are especially deadly on coho and brown trout. Wobblers have their own “Dive Curve” which means they dive below the surface at increasing levels based on how far behind the boat they are trolled and also the line diameter used in trolling.
            The best “wobblers” for coho tend to be compact baits with a wide wobble and noisy rattles. The Yakima Mag Lip in the 3.0 and 3.5 sizes is an ideal wobble bait for targeting spring trout and salmon. Other good baits include the Yakima Fat Wiggler, Storm Wiggle Wart and Hot n Tot series of hard baits.
            For coho these baits produce best when fished suspended in the water column. For brown trout it helps to fish these baits a little deeper and to make occasional contact with bottom.
            In-line boards like the popular Off Shore Tackle Side-Planer are essential tools for spreading out plug lines to cover the maximum amount of water. Stacking boards two or three per side is the best way to cover the maximum amount of water, but this also requires rigging the boards accordingly so they can be released when fish are hooked.
            Most in-line boards are designed to stay on the line, forcing the angler to fight both the fish and the board as it tries to plane to the side. The Side-Planer is different in that this board comes with an OR19 (orange) line release on the tow arm of the board and also an OR16 (red) Snap Weight Clip mounted at the back of the board.
            Rigged in this manner the line can be tripped from the tow arm release when a fish is hooked simply by giving the rod tip a little snap. This trips the line from the release and allows the board to spin around backwards. The board remains affixed to the line because the OR16 Snap Weight Clip has a plastic pin between the rubber pads that insures the line can not come out of the clip.
            When a fish is hooked and the board tripped, the fish immediately starts to drag the board to the back of the boat. The tripped board slides right past other board lines making it unnecessary to clear lines while fighting fish.
            The trick to this set up is to be patient and reel slowly on a hooked fish at first. This gives the board time to slide out of formation and clear other planer board lines. Once the board is directly behind the boat, reel in the board and fish together. When the board is close enough to the boat, grab the board and remove it from the line. The final step is to simply fight the fish to net.

Charters typically use heavy gear to target salmon
 even in the spring. All this gear makes it hard
 to enjoy fighting a modest fish and kind of defeats
 the whole purpose of “sport fishing” in the process.

            Some manufacturers recommend releasing their boards and letting the board slide down the line to the fish. Normally a bead or swivel is used to stop the board from sliding all the way to the fish.
            This method sounds good in theory, but forces the angler to fight a fish that can easily pull the board under water. Once the board submerges, the fish gains considerable leverage off the board and often tears free before it can be landed. At the very least trying to land a fish and submerged planer board destroys any chance of enjoying the fight.        

            In the spring time downsizing from traditional salmon gear to “walleye gear” puts the sizzle back into spring trolling for coho and browns.